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Gatland return, Puma priority: five Super Rugby talking points

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Wellington (AFP)

Super Rugby launches its 25th season this weekend, just three months after South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in stunning fashion and Japan reached the last eight for the first time in their history.

But many of the victorious Springbok squad are playing in Europe while the Japan's only franchise the Sunwolves will say goodbye at the end of the campaign.

Here are five talking points ahead of Friday's big kick-off:

- Argentina come before Jaguares -

Jaguares coach Gonzalo Quesada is downplaying suggestions the South Americans can go one step further than last year's breakthrough effort and win the championship in only their fifth year.

Their post-World Cup losses are relatively light, although significant, with only Pablo Matera, Tomas Lavanini, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Ramiro Moyano and Enrique Pieretto taking flight.

But Quesada is looking at the big picture for Argentina rugby, filling the gaps with young talent and with plans not to risk player burnout before the international season as the 10th-ranked Los Pumas target the top eight before the draw is made in November for the 2023 World Cup.

"I think the message is clear that the priority, and most important, are Los Pumas," he said. "The national team is the largest to which one can aspire. That is clear in all heads and (what we are) working on."

- Warrenball or Chiefly flamboyance? -

After 12 years in charge of Wales and two tours as head coach of the British and Irish Lions with one to come, Warren Gatland is undoubtedly the most experienced Super Rugby coach this year and he has wasted no time making his mark at Waikato Chiefs.

He baffled the pundits when naming his line-up for Friday's season opener against the Auckland Blues at Eden Park by naming All Blacks openside flanker Sam Cane at number eight.

Toiroa Tahuriorangi gets the nod at scrum-half over Brad Weber and debutant 21-year-old Kaleb Trask starts at fly-half ahead of Aaron Cruden.

He's also dumped the fashionable co-captain idea, which the Chiefs had run with for several years, and put Cane in sole charge.

Yet to be unveiled is whether the Chiefs will adopt the confrontational "Warrenball" style of play or continue with their traditional attacking flair.

Loose forward Luke Jacobson, who enjoys Gatland's short, sharp training sessions over lengthy, exhaustive affairs, hinted the 2012 and 2013 champions would be "playing an exciting brand of footy, it's in our DNA".

- Lion Roberts, giant Stormers -

Western Stormers will beef up their midfield for their opener against Welington Hurricanes when they throw former Wales and British and Irish Lions centre Jamie Roberts into an immediate starting debut at Newlands on Saturday.

The 33-year-old 6ft 4in (1.93 metre), 110 kilogramme (243lb) new recruit Roberts will line up at 12 alongside Ruhan Nel (1.91m, 101kg) in a massive central combination.

"We are going to play our strongest team," Stormers coach John Dobson said.

"All the Springboks are available and we have a British and Irish Lion in Jamie Roberts. We have to start well. There is no holding back this side. Maximum effort and maximum team, the best team that we can put out.

"Jamie will play on Saturday. We are going full strength and will use all the international experience that we have got."

- Sunwolves ride World Cup wave -

Japan's Sunwolves will be looking to go out with a bang in their fifth and final year in Super Rugby.

The Tokyo-based side, who begin their campaign at home to the Melbourne Rebels in Fukuoka at the weekend, have won just eight of 61 matches since joining the competition in 2016 and are set to become a statistical footnote of SANZAAR's failed expansion drive.

But new coaching coordinator Keisuke Sawaki promised the Sunwolves, who have been on the wrong end of some ugly hidings in their short history, would look to build on the feel-good factor generated by last year's Rugby World Cup in Japan when the hosts reached the quarter-finals.

"We want the players to be proud to have represented the Sunwolves and for the fans to have enjoyed watching us," the 44-year-old told local media.

"There's a tailwind behind Japanese rugby at the moment so we want to make people happy and to go out and win in style."

- Young tens go for it -

Rookie fly-halves Noah Lolesio and Isaac Lucas could give a glimpse of things to come for the Wallabies when they square off for the ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds respectively on Friday

Junior Wallaby Lolesio will wear the number 10 jersey on his Brumbies debut while the Reds have opted for Under-20 starlet Lucas as their playmaker.

Lucas made eight appearances for Queensland in 2019, either at fullback or wing and helped Australia reach the final of the World Rugby Under-20 Championship with a series of outstanding performances.

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